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Happy Hour: Drivers try to get a feel for AMS track in final practice

September 03, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Conditions at Atlanta expected to be completely different for race under the lights

HAMPTON, Ga. -- There was a lot of going around in circles Saturday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway, not only on the track during Happy Hour but in the haulers afterward.

The final 90-minute practice for was held in sunny and hot conditions, basically nothing like what drivers and crew chiefs will face when the green flag drops just before sunset for Sunday's AdvoCare 500.

Tony Stewart takes the high line in practice at AMS. (Getty Images)

Atlanta

Happy Hour Speeds
Pos.DriverSpeedTime
2.T. Stewart181.979 30.465
3.C. Bowyer 181.675 30.516
4.Keselowski 180.669 30.686
5.G. Biffle 180.557 30.705

Still, that didn't stop most of the top teams from running up to 74 laps, like Kurt Busch did, in an effort to get a baseline setup that will work on a track that may change significantly from green to checker.

To a man, each driver talked about the slickness of AMS' ancient asphalt surface, particularly under a late-summer sun as the track rubbers in. The track is brutal on new tires, and speeds drop 10-12 mph during the course of a green-flag run.

"Certainly, you get out there and it's like, 'Alright, same old Atlanta,' " Kyle Busch said. "[You] just can't really find the feel that you're looking for, but certainly [you] just try to do the best you can in putting a corner together.

"Practicing during the day and then going into a night race, certainly that adds a different element to everything, but certainly we'd like to think we've got a good basis to think how that's going to change running a night race here."

Jeff Gordon topped the leaderboard with a fast lap of 182.392 mph. But he admitted he won't know how his car will respond after the sun goes down and the track cools.

"We still do not know exactly what the race conditions are going to be like [Sunday] because our practice was a little bit earlier in the day," Gordon said. "We might know about what it is going to be like when the race starts. It was still really slick.

"One thing that I love about this race track is the abrasiveness that it has the multiple grooves and how hard you are going to work throughout the whole night. You are going to bounce back and forth all night long between being loose and being tight, and slipping and sliding around."

Atlanta is known for multiple racing grooves and Gordon expects to use every one of them at some point during the race.

"It is a great place to race but the line I can tell you is a very thin line, at these speeds," Gordon said. "With the way this track is, abrasive-wise, it gets your attention in a hurry. [The car] can snap around on you really quick."

Greg Biffle ran a total of 62 laps and was fifth-quickest on the speed chart. For him, it's all about getting comfortable for the entire 500-mile distance rather than turning a quick qualifying lap.

"If I had it my way, we'd probably just work on race practice the whole time and just forget about qualifying," Biffle said. "Get the best lap you can on qualifying day and wherever you start you start.

"It's a four-hour race and the track is real wide. There are a lot of passing grooves out there, so qualifying is probably less important here than it is in a lot of places we go to. I think trying to hit that race setup that feels good is going to be difficult to do, but it's going to be really important."

Defending race winner Tony Stewart said the key to being in contention at the end of the race continues to evolve as the track changes.

"I used to think it was being able to get through the bumps here and I think we've seen in the last couple of years that you don't have to be able to run right on the bottom of the race track," Stewart said. "This track is one where tire management is big.

"You run so fast at the beginning of a run, but the pace just falls off so much. You just have to have a car that is hopefully balanced enough on the front of a run that you can take care of it and not have to overdrive the car."

Stewart, who ran 63 laps in Happy Hour, said it may be close to impossible to keep from running the highest groove when the tires begin to go away.

"Most of the guys are going to end up on the top of the race track midway through a run," Stewart said. "The biggest part is knowing when to move and being able to have a car that is balanced across the whole race track not just one particular area. That will get you in trouble."

The only incident occurred when J.J. Yeley white-walled the right side of his No. 38 Ford on his first lap of practice. The crew worked to straighten out the fenders and he returned to run a total of four laps. A total of 47 cars turned at least one lap, with Mike Bliss the slowest at 171.870 mph.